Monthly Archives: September 2010

‘It is important to understand economics in the Indian context’, says RBI governor

Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, had come to deliver the M.Ct.M. Chidambaram Chettyar Memorial Lecture at the Institute on August 27, 2010. The team from Voices interviewed the Governor on the sidelines of the lecture. Here are the Governor’s thoughts on various issues raised by the Voices’ team of student journalists.

On shifting from Physics to Economics
Governor: Since I was not into research, my shifting from Physics to Economics was not a tectonic shift in the sense you mean. It happened quite organically. After completing my masters in Physics from IIT Kanpur, I joined the civil services in 1972. My postings during the early years in the IAS were mostly in rural areas. During this time, I realized that I would be a more relevant and useful civil servant if I knew a bit of economics and that was the motivation for this ‘shift from physics to economics’ as you put it. Since I had no background in economics, I was not eligible for admission to a masters programme in economics in the Indian system. Therefore, I went to Ohio State University in the US to study economics.

On research interest
Governor: I got my PhD from Andhra University. My dissertation was on ‘Fiscal Reforms at the State Level’. The economic reforms we embarked upon in 1991 were characterized by three big ticket items: (i) dismantling of the industrial licencing regime; (ii) liberalization of the external sector; and (iii) disinvestment from public enterprises. As you will note, these were all macro reforms carried out by the central government. But very soon we realized that these reforms had to be followed up by microlevel reforms, and that required the proactive involvement of the states. My research interest was triggered by the context of what needs to be done at the sub-national level to carry forward the reform effort. My stint as Finance Secretary in Government of Andhra Pradesh for over five years also gave me valuable domain knowledge of fiscal reforms at the cutting edge level.

On why was India relatively unscathed from the recent financial crisis
Governor: There are several reasons why India was relatively unscathed by the recent global crisis. Let me state three important ones. First, our banks did not have significant exposure to the toxic assets and tainted institutions and their off-balance sheet business was limited. Second, our exports are small in relative terms, less than 15% of GDP. So, the impact of the global downturn was muted. Third, the Reserve Bank instituted pre-emptory countercyclical regulatory measures to check the flow of credit to some vulnerable sectors. All these factors helped in insulating India from the worst impacts of the crisis.

On monetary policy being independent from political expectation
Governor: I can answer this question at several levels. First, the Reserve Bank is a public institution and it is only right that everyone has a stake in our policy. The Government too is a stakeholder, and a big one at that. Importantly, what we in the Reserve Bank do to manage inflation has vital implications for the Government. So, political expectations of monetary policy are not only inevitable, but I believe, also not inappropriate. This is true not just for India but for all countries, particularly for democracies. The important thing though is that Government’s expectations should not compromise the independence of monetary policy.

At another level, it is important to understand that there is a nexus between the Government’s fiscal policy and the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy. The size of the Government’s borrowing affects the interest rates in the economy which has a bearing on monetary policy. Vice versa, the Reserve Bank’s decision on policy interest rates affects the interest costs of the government and hence their fiscal position.

Over the years, the Government and the Reserve Bank have established a healthy working relationship. The Reserve Bank consults the Government but the final decision on monetary policy issues is ours and ours alone.

On the role of a central bank in a developed country as compared to one in a developing country

Governor: RBI has a much wider mandate than most other central banks. For example, the Bank of England is a pure inflation targetter; the US Fed has responsibility for inflation and unemployment. In contrast, the Reserve Bank is a full service central bank. In addition to being the monetary authority, the Reserve Bank is the regulator and supervisor of banks, non-bank finance companies and of important segments of the financial markets. We regulate the payment and settlement system and manage the external sector of the economy. We are the debt managers for the central and state governments. The Reserve Bank has historically played an important role in building development institutions in the country. For example, the Reserve Bank started off the UTI, IDBI, NABARD, NHB etc. In that sense, as compared to a developed country, the central bank of a developing country has a larger responsibility for growth and economic development in addition to the standard mandate for price stability and financial stability.

On economic education in the country
Governor: At the outset, I must confess that I am not familiar with the current state of economic education in the country and it will be inappropriate on my part to make any definitive statement. I do have some thoughts though on somethings that we must be focusing on. First, I think it is important to teach and understand economics in the Indian context. Let me elaborate. There are certain textbook concepts which are not relevant for a developing economy. For example, the concept of ‘Ricardian Equivalence’ does not strictly operate in a poor country. Similarly, the problems of monetary transmission we have here are different from those in advanced economies. In studying economics, therefore, we should be looking for the Indian context. Second, I think, economics education should have a greater empirical orientation. In other words, our teachers and students of economics ‘should get their hands dirty’. Third, there should be larger focus on studying the diversity of India’s development experience so as to understand what works, where and why. This is possibly the most efficient way for us to mainstream successful ‘enclave’ experiments.

On communicating the economic policies and decisions to the people
Governor: Central banks are increasingly realizing the importance of communication for improving the effectiveness of their policies. Let me give an example. The Reserve Bank has primary responsibility for managing inflation. But inflation is influenced not only by the supply-demand balance but also by inflation expectations. The Reserve Bank can shape inflation expectations by explaining the rationale for its policy decisions and thereby better deliver its mandate on price stability.

Beyond, monetary policy issues too, the Reserve Bank attaches value to communication. As a public institution, we have an obligation to explain the background and rationale of our policies as a way of rendering accountability.

On being a columnist with Economic Times
Governor: I was not a regular columnist. I used to write occasionally for Economic Times and also for a few other publications on fiscal and external sector issues. It was an intellectually rewarding experience. Reading is one thing, but when one starts writing, one’s understanding of the subject becomes deeper.

[Shyam (Mgmt), Madhurima (Mgmt) and Abraham (Mgmt) interviewed the Governor. Our special thanks to Mr. Susobhan Sinha (Deputy General Manager, RBI), Prof. P. Balaram (Director, IISc), Prof. M.H. Bala Subrahmanya (Chairman, Mgmt) and Ms. V. Thilagam, PRO, IISc]

‘Legitimate wife’ and other stories

The legitimate wife

I relate a conversation which I had with an ex-Voice-ean. I was trying to convince him of becoming a member of the IISc alumni association. The benefit of using the library facility was laughed off mercilessly. When I tried to lure him with the option of getting a hosyala guest house booked, I was in turn told about the experience of a common friend. The common friend wanted to accomodate his wife, working outside Bangalore, for somedays in the Hoysala guesthouse. He was denied a room in the guest house for the reason that wife cannot be considered his blood relation. IISc entertains only those guests who are blood relations of the students. All his efforts to convince his ‘legitimate’ marriage turned out to be futile. Common sense is indeed the most uncommonest thing around.

UG @ IISc, Bangalore, INDIA(fullstop)

We are posing a small challenge to the IISc-ians. Identify the photos given in the poster released by the UG admissions team. Also try to connect their link to IISc. If you fail to answer any despite being a part of the campus, think of the plight of the 17-18 year old prospective students viewing this poster. Strangely, all the disciplines which will be offered has got a picture and a title.

The International Relations Cell of the campus informs the reader that IISc is located in Bangalore, India(fullstop). I wonder where else will an Indian Institute be, other than in India?

Designing a poster is an art. It should have a proper balance of text, pictures and white space. For more on posters, a visit to Antz fx would be enlightening.

Raise your voice, let yourself be heard

More than an year ago when Condoleeza Rice, former Foreign Secretary, United States, was welcomed back in Stanford by The Golden Spike, the Stanford newsletter, with the headline ‘Condoleezza Rice bulls***s way through lecture’. The reason being liberals in Stanford did not approve of a professor taking a eight year sabbatical.

Do we have guts to write anything gutsy on any faculty, let alone, on any one in the top administration? I doubt that. We live in an environment of fear. We are often scared by the potential risks involved in declaring the emperor naked. As the editor of this newsletter, I believe, Voices do get noticed. Come, join and strengthen us to make Voices a reflection of yourselves. You are welcome to contact us at

Raise your voice, let yourself be heard.

Shyam (Mgmt)

Psychology, Neuroscience and Research: An Interview with Dr. Shyamala Mani

Dr Shyamala Mani, from the Centre for Neurosciences, here at the Indian Institute of Science, has been awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Knight of the Order of Academic Palms).

The award was conferred during a ceremony on June 14 at the Alliance Française de Bangalore. The prestigious award is given by the French Government to individuals, recognizing their distinguished contribution to academia and education. It is one of the oldest and highest civil decorations, dating back to the 1808, when it was created by Napoleon. It was reinstated in 1955. Previous awardees of the Palmes Academiques include Dr Goverdhan Mehta, IISc; Prof CNR Rao, JNCASR; Dr KJ Rao, IISc; and Dr KJ Mahale, Karnataka University.

The Consul General of France, Dominique Causse will confer the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Acadèmiques on Dr Shyamala Mani for her significant contributions to neurosciences, in particular her work under the ICMR-Inserm collaboration and the International Associated Laboratory ‘Protect’ (DBT-Inserm) on neonatal lesions and the influence of malnutrition on the development of the foetal brain. Dr. Mani has a grant from the French Governement and has been collaborating with them since 2004.

1. You’ve recently been conferred the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Knight of the Order of Academic Palms) by the French Government.  Congratulations.  How do you feel about it?

It was an honour, it was nice…. different from your normal award. It was nice to be able to prepare for a public talk; to be able to communicate to non-scientific people and the general public. I had to think about how I could make it interesting to people who had no background in the field; you can’t show them your gels or immunos!

It was nice to get out of the normal routine for a while. I really enjoyed it. I had a wonderful time.  It feels good that this award was given for the contribution to French education and culture.

2. You’ve done your MS in Clinical Psychology and have later moved on to studying neurogenesis.  What inspired you to work in this area?

I was very interested in psychology. I did my BA in psychology from Delhi University and then Masters in Clinical Psychology from Marquette University. I really enjoyed it. But I think, at some point, I felt I wanted something more concrete. Psychology was, I felt, more abstract and prone to interpretation. Maybe I wanted something where I could clearly say whether a particular thing’s there or not there (viz… a band on a gel), as opposed to trying to infer someone’s thinking or reasoning. I wanted something more quantitative, something more tangible; something that I could actually see.

It was a very logical reasoning. I was always interested in the functional brain. I remember clearly thinking that unless I have a handle on what the brain is about, I’m not going to be able to understand why certain people behave the way they do; what abnormal behaviour is and what cognitive and psychological illnesses [really] are.

Now it’s possible to do clinical psychology and try to understand trends alone, but at that age I didn’t see it that way. I wanted to do something more basic. I was doing my PhD in psychology in Upstate Medical University.  I left it mid-way, went back and took all the basic biology courses.

3. How was your experience in the transition?

At that point it was fantastic; I was really excited. But nowadays, I sometimes feel a tinge of regret. There was some joy – a different kind of intellectual excitement – in trying to understand behaviour. It’s different from trying to understand how the brain works. I do miss that. It would have been nice if at some point, when I was doing my PhD, I could have tried to integrate the two. A synthesis might have been possible.  But I am so deep in what I am doing now that I cannot see myself changing fields right now.

4. In the present day scenario, how do you perceive the contribution of women in research?

I’ve never thought of it in that compartmentalized way. I think a lot of women scientists are doing great research – their contribution is as much as that of men. In fact, there is more pressure on men to make a quick buck because they have to be the bread winners, but women can take up careers like science and contribute because society doesn’t thrust upon women the role of the main bread winner. Women will contribute more due to this but there are other pressures on them. Women are seen as the center of the family; as the one who upholds it. It’s a huge challenge for women. In the case of men, if you raise the bar so that they earn as much as in some other field, many will come into pure sciences. But in the case of women, the pressure is more subtle and therefore, more difficult to solve. If we could take care of these pressures on women, they could achieve more.

But I must add that this is a very general outlook.  Different people might face different pressures, so this view is true in a very general sense.  One has to, at some point, sometimes generalize.

But then again 26:30, it is improper to build a “menu” in science that only certain women are capable of succeeding in science.  One cannot select for a certain set of “phenotypes” and leave the rest out because you never know which “phenotype” you really need to solve the big problems in science.

5. Do you think there is sufficient dialogue between practicing doctors and researchers in medicine?

No. We need to establish that kind of dialogue. We have specific problems in India that need to be overcome for that to happen. Firstly, MD-PhD programmes don’t exist at any level here. And we have fundamental problems of rural health care. There aren’t enough people to treat the sick and the patient numbers are so high. Doctors get so involved in treating – what matters to them is ‘How many lives have I saved today?’. They are used to a different way of thinking. For them, it is instant gratification – do an operation and a life’s better. For a doctor to understand science, where it doesn’t happen that way, he has to understand how things work in this field. He can’t ask me, “How long have you been working on stem cells? Can we give them to patients? No? Then what’s the point?” The two outlooks need to find some common ground, but I do agree that we need to have some kind of a dialogue.

6. Do you believe that companies can play a role in helping to have an increased dialogue between the two, doctors and researchers?

Sure, I think companies could play a role, but we have to be a little careful.  Because, a company is by nature for profit.  And so, we can bring companies in only when we kind of stabilize to a certain extent in our [respective] fields.  If we bring too many things in too early, and research becomes driven by profit or [becomes] competitive in a different kind of way, then we might miss asking the really difficult questions that might seem very long term, very boring at this point, seeming to have no applications, but I think, this is the point when you need to ask the difficult questions that might give you the real answers.

So there is a danger in getting practical too fast.  So maybe we need to hold off initially until we figure out for ourselves what we do think are the things to think about and then brainstorm and see whether it makes sense.  But, if you don’t do that exercise, then you’re in the danger  But the huge part of it is that one doesn’t want to get them in too early.

I am all for getting the doctors in as soon as possible, if that is the case, because they provide a valuable perspective to the way one has been thinking about the field. That’s a different issue.  You don’t want to make things too complicated or think to apply too fast.  The initial stages are best driven purely by academic interests.

7. In what ways does your research improve the quality of life of patients?

The effect is not direct. My research provides some of the keys to understand the development of the human brain.

If you wish to use a particular therapy, for instance stem cell therapy, you need to understand the fundamental biology of stem cells. You might be doing a therapy that is not optimal or counter-productive because you don’t understand the biology behind it. Or if you wish to understand diseases that may have developmental origins, understanding brain development is, I think, really important to understanding disease.

So I’d say yes, I think that the kind of work that we do is important in understanding, but if [you ask whether] it will directly impinge on the patient, maybe not.

8. What, in your opinion, are the thrust areas in neuroscience?

The thrust area in neuroscience is to understand how we experience the outside world, the way we experience it, the quality of our experience. At one level you have electrochemical signaling going on in the networks in the brain. At another level, you have the experience of living and the relationship between the two is not clear. I think to understand this relationship is the frontier, the cutting edge of neuroscience. For example, when you see red, your experience is not a wavelength, it’s the quality of red. We understand how the ganglion cells in the brain code for different colours but we don’t understand what happens beyond that.

There are other challenges in development. Like how genes specify shape – be it the shape of an embryo or a single neuron. We don’t understand the translation of genes to morphology or patterning.

9. Your views on standards of brain research in India/IISc as compared to those abroad..

We have had stronger traditions in theoretical subjects in India, and Biology, requiring a lot of infrastructure, has come in a little later.  And so Biology is a young field, but in  Biology, neuroscience is a fledgling fieldunlike Chemistry or Physics or Mathematics. IISc being 100 years old has just started its neuroscience department! There were people doing it before too but it’s not an old tradition. All neuroscientists in India could be found in a University or maybe a cluster of universities in India. Maybe Chicago has more neuroscientists than all of India put together!  Right now we’re at a stage where we need to build the discipline of neuroscience and figure out what the important questions are that we need to address, and what kind of direction we need to take.  It would really be fantastic even if, in the next 10 years or so, if somebody wants to do Neuroscience in India, it’s not necessary for him/her to think that there is no option in India and he/she has to go abroad. And any branch of neuroscience that someone wants to work on, he/she can do so right here.

When you train enough people, automatically the system builds up; but if you pressurize the system into a competitive mode in the beginning itself, you’ll miss the boat and just end up doing me-too research. We should be careful about how we nurture and build the field.

10. Your vision for the future of the department

My vision would be a group of neuroscientists who are working on all aspects of neuroscience – trying to understand cognition, neural networks, diseases etc. That if somehow, all of us work in a co-ordinated fashion, we could address common problems and really make a contribution to the field of neuroscience. I think that’s possible in a place like this.

A place like this is a great opportunity for people to come together – people with different points of view looking at the same point and people from other fields like Mathematics, Physics and Engineering- to come up with innovative ideas. Also, it would be good to work with people from other areas of biology. At the end of the day, a neuron is a cell too, maybe a specialized cell but it’s still a cell. You never know where the real insights would come from. If you really do your own thing, it’s not going to happen. You need to chat with people who think in a completely different way; you need to be able to look beyond.

That’s my vision – to really do something different.

11. Your message to students, on pursuing a career in research and to students who wish to work in areas of neuroscience…

I think, in Science you just have to have a passion for it – you either really want to do science or you don’t. If you don’t want to do science, it’s ok. I’d say if a student is really interested in science, he’d not give up his dream and get pressurized into doing something else because that was expected. If you’ve a passion for science, keep at it.

If you don’t have passion for science, don’t do it as a career; it won’t work. At the end of the day, you won’t feel happy.

I am more worried about the former. Many students who’re really passionate about science leave science, either for lack of information or due to pressures. I’d say if you love science, just go ahead and somehow make it true.

To me (this is biased), studying anything about the brain is so exciting. If a student is interested in any aspect of the brain, there are now many places in India where you could get a good education in neuroscience, or a PhD in neurosciences.

Interviewed by Bhavana Sekhar (ECE), Smrithi Murthy (MRDG) and K. Vijayanth Reddy (ECE)

Superbugs, Bugging news and Buggers galore

It all started with dramatic news flashes such as “Superbug from India?”, and “bacteria spreading from India to UK?” and by the next morning, the prominent newspapers had their theories up on the first page. Finally, it seemed that at least one piece of the daily quota of “breaking news” was indeed interesting (and alarming) and would get some rightly-deserved focus over the next week. However, it was only a matter of time that yet another “breaking news” came along and the primary issue was reduced to rubble and its true significance chucked off to the bin!!

For someone who has not been following the news regularly, the recent reports will only lead to complete and utter cluelessness due to the mind numbing rhetoric. It thus makes sense to first address the question of what the furore was all about. Briefly, the reputed journal LANCET had published a collaborative work, involving several groups from India, Pakistan the UK, which claimed that a bacterial gene that confers resistance to practically all the β-lactam antibiotics was widespread across the subcontinent. Furthermore, riding on carriers and patients, this “superbug” was traveling to other continents. Since most antibiotics, including the frontline carbapenems were ineffective against the bacteria that harbored this gene, it seemed to be an unstoppable medical crisis. This resistance conferring gene is mainly carried on plasmids (small, autonomous DNA molecules which can “jump” from one bacterial species to another) and was called the New Delhi β-lactamase (NDM-1).

While a fact based, dispassionate analysis of what ensued was necessary to gain some perspective on the matter, and it was exactly the component that was missing in the entire reportage! The media and the government were quick to denounce the findings of the report. It was labeled unscientific and unacceptable in addition to being the handiwork of a pharmaceutical lobby! The panel discussions on TV had doctors, bureaucrats and politicians, but rarely a microbiologist or an epidemiologis. The consensus seemed to be that the entire work smelt of a conspiracy. A treacherous plot by the west to destroy our burgeoning “medical tourism industry”! What is Medical Tourism? Well, a large numbers of Westerners come to India every year for various medical treatments ranging from cosmetic surgery to dental treatments as a cheaper alternative destination. This was also encouraged at the national level as an effective strategy to cut down on the expenses for the NHS (in UK) and other such health care providers in the west. Now, if these “tourists” could be dissuaded from travel by the fear of infection, then the medical tourism industry and consequently the influx of foreign exchange would be hit. This report was thus portrayed as an attempt by the Occident to paint a dirty and disease-spreading image of India, the rising economic power. Hence, it was implied, that it is the duty of every patriotic Indian to protest to this “national insult” towards restoring the “India shining” image.

Here, we try to present the issue as we see it with our limited perspectives, based on reading the LANCET paper and couple of other reviews and some of the more rational and balanced news reports. As researchers who have a clearer understanding of field, it is horrifying specter to see how the issue has been completely blown out of proportion and the crux of the research has been conveniently sidelined.

For the uninitiated, it must be stated that the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria is not a new phenomenon. The development of resistance to conventional antibiotics in bacteria from clinical and non-clinical settings is not a new phenomenon and has been a potential problem for a long time. Since the bacterial life spans are short the development of resistance in bacteria was always well anticipated and this never ending arms race with the humans developing newer and more potent antibiotics and the bacteria developing newer means of resistance is the fundamental feature of biological evolution. It has been known for 50 years now, and academic and industrial research has always been on the lookout for newer antibiotics. A decade ago, there was a surge of concern about the Meticillin resistant S. aureus (MRSA), a gram-positive bacterium notorious for causing nosocomial/hospital acquired infections. Today, there is a lot of worry about how to tackle the several multi-drug-resistant gram-negative bacteria that pose the greatest threat to public health. Resistance genes spreading across different species either by piggybacking on plasmids (as in the case of NDM-1) or by horizontal gene transfer are increasingly considered dangerous as we run out of potent antibiotics. Human air travel and migration are at an all-time high and are naturally contributing to the spread of resistant bacteria.

With this background, it might make you wonder like we did about what the hue and cry in the media was all about?

Firstly, NDM-1 – a “bad” gene named after the nation’s capital is being considered a national insult! The media was whipping up a frenzy by capitalizing on this as an issue of national pride. But, naming a new organism or enzyme after its source, site-of-first-identification or discoverer is part of scientific convention, specifically, with regard to this particular group of enzymes! More than50 β-lactamases have been identified between 2000 and 2006 and thus it is not surprising, as one review says, that “β-lactamase nomenclature has been nothing if not creative”. And, anyways, we have so many other examples all around. The banyan tree is named as Ficus benghalenesis. One of the most virulent of pathogens, the causative agent for TB, is called Mycobacterium tuberculosis Beijing. A new frog species found in Sahyadari (Western Ghats) has been named Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis. In 1961, a dinosaur was named as Barapasaurus tagorei as its discovery coincided with the birth centenary of Tagore. There are other bacterial pathogens christened as Clostridium botulinum strain Alaska and Anaplasma centrale strain Israel. Further, the restriction enzymes such as EcoRI and BamHI, which are the scissors of molecular biology, have long been named after their source organism. Does anyone recall any protest from Beijing when the TB causing pathogenic train was named after it? Did we shout when we had a cute little frog and the majestic tree named after our lands? No, we probably clung to that reflected glory just as we did when Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan got the Nobel (and as a token of gratitude, jammed his e-mail inbox!). Resistant bacteria arise all over the world, and no matter how much we consider ourselves to be superior to the rest of the world, we cannot deny the fact that India is still on planet Earth. So, why is there a problem in accepting that an enzyme has been named after it was first identified in a Swedish patient who had been treated at a hospital in New Delhi, and probably acquired the infection there?

Frankly, the hyper-emotive response shows how pathetic we are with respect to “science as a way of life”. Also, it is possible that by projecting it as an “identity crisis” it becomes a case of “India versus non-Indians” and then the main issue can be deliberately and conveniently sidelined. In fact, it is not too difficult to counter-postulate that, those who are “protesting” have vested interests in the medical tourism business. The recent “paid news” scandals have only further exposed such forms of corruption.

The important thing however which deserves all the attention is the prevalence of such deadly antibiotic resistant strains in our hospitals and that issue has been completely sidelined. This study shows that such NDM-1 harboring bacteria are present in patients in all parts of the country, not only Haryana and Chennai and also in Pakistan (most likely, they’ll spread after the recent floods, and cross the LoC undetected). Additionally, this is not the first or only study of NDM-1 in the country. In March 2010, another paper showed that 22 cases of NDM-1 positive patients were identified in 3 months in a single Mumbai hospital. The LANCET article, however, has provided the spotlight to the subject. It also says that most of the patients have “community acquired urinary tract infections, pneumonia and blood stream infections”. Is India that spotlessly clean and hygienic? Are our sanitation and waste disposal systems the most efficient? A lack of statistical analysis is a drawback of this paper. But, if indeed 17 out of 37 NDM-1 positive UK patients (46%) had been recently admitted to hospitals in India, isn’t it possible that these could be nosocomial/hospital-acquired infections? With this of course, one can just pause and wonder that if the hi-fi hospitals catering to foreign patients are a source of these infections, then how bad is it in the real India of the aam admi? Don’t we have high incidences of so many infections – TB, HIV, diarrhea, malaria, and dengue? We all know that our health system is appalling. And while bacteria don’t give a damn to caste and class, many pathogens certainly thrive in unhealthy conditions and pass on their plasmids and resistant genes such as NDM-1.

Questions have been raised about the role of funding agencies. The paper categorically states, as we all do when we write our own, that the funders had no role in study design, etc etc. Is there any strong data to doubt this? Then, we have to doubt the ways we ourselves write our manuscripts. And in the “conflicts of interest”, the authors are honest about their travel grants and their interaction with the industry. All over the world, including in India, academics are increasingly becoming part of the industries. Wouldn’t denouncing the LANCET authors result in slandering almost the entire scientific community? And misreporting can go to such ridiculous levels That the National newspapers consistently referred to the “Welcome trust” as a pharmaceutical giant till the trust finally came out with a clarification. The fact of the matter is that the media is trying to blow up a story without an accurate understanding and this is only diverting the public focus from the more important issue of the development of resistance in microbes to the other peripheral issues of private funding, national pride etc etc.

Despite the baseless furore surrounding this whole episode, it is important that this issue is not relegated to the back burners in a week. The situation is critical especially in India since resistance to extended-spectrum beta-lactamases (ESBL) drugs like the third-generation Cephalosporins is between 60 to 70% on average, compared to the less than 15% seen in the developed countries. Thus, a more common way of treating the severe form of ESBL infections in India is through the use of Carbepenem – which becomes the drug of choice as it has (or rather had!) the lowest resistance and the broadest action against gram negative infections. The emergence of resistance against Carbepenem is bad news undoubtedly but for the patients and physicians in India who now have to look for new antibiotics but this is a self created nuisance too. The spread of resistance is not surprising keeping in view the fact that very potent drugs like Carbepenem are overused by the physicians. The easy over-the counter availability of these drugs also makes the problem more acute as patients end up self medicating in sub-lethal doses (For the bacteria of course), thus, leading to the acquisition of resistance. These are problems which have been known to the medical community for a very long time but have not been addressed by the government, the media or the Public. It is easy for us to blame the whole world for our woes. And it is also easy to malign the lead author, a Ph.D student at the University of Madras as a “traitor”. We can also conveniently ignore these scientific data till it is too late to do anything. For our mind however, if the work is a true whistle-blower, then as the national emblem says, “truth alone triumphs” and it shall in this case too. Ignoring this problem only takes us closer to the inconvenient truth of the origin antibiotic resistant, untreated diseases and a resultant death for millions of Indians. Let us hope that the people, the media, the politicians and the health professions wake up and seriously address this not-so-distant crisis.

R. Suvasini (MCBL), Anirban Mitra (MCBL)

Insanity Unlimited 4

In an attempt to restore sanity to proceedings and to enliven up all of your lives in general here we are with the 4th edition of this write up which after a brief hiatus has returned with all the brouhaha that is characteristic of this column. I can assure you that like always there will be thunder and lightning but no rain. It is that time of the year when a new batch of students with question marks on their faces join the institute after gaining access to it’s hallowed portals. Each one of these students are special in a way – some will be quick in Mathematics and can predict the nature of the solution to a mathematical problem intuitively just by looking at it. Some will be master crammers who can by heart lengthy sixteen line equations and all it’s fathomable variations just like this. In the examination hall they will ooze confidence and the expression on their faces will seem to suggest that “ if you need some come get some.” In the rarest of rare occasions they will forget whether it was “a squared” or “a cube” – that is – Iam talking about the first term within the bracket.Some of the brightlights, as an answer to a question,will write in the exam answer script that in all likelihood “2x” is the answer to the question .However , under exceptional circumstances when the z’s and the y’s do not behave the way they ought to, the answer might as well be “3x”.This way they intend to insure themselves from all unexpected conceptual assaults. It is something like “total football” played the Dutch way. There will be a few Usain Bolts also– who will write a three hour exam in 35 minutes and breeze out of the exam hall as if there are more pressing engagements awaiting his immediate attention. The stunt will further confuse his fellow class mates who by then would have lost a few kilos of weight through perspiration after seeing the severity of the question paper.Some of the students will decide to clarify doubts in the question paper and they will approach the invigilator with a request to summon the course instructor immediately. Once he arrives he will be asked some abstruse doubts which will make the professor think the way he had not thought in the last twenty years. His facial expression will betray a feeling as if he was cliffhanging with his life depending on clarifying the doubt asked by the to be Newton. All said and done the newbees are the best in the business – the expert exam takers.
A sneak peek into their social life will be material for juicy gossip. They will be blown over by such and such person and will try and match timings with him/her in the mess. His/her roving eye will try and find out like minded individuals to have dinner or lunch with. Suddenly they will find themselves discussing about the prediction of the octopus during FIFA world cup 2010, their courses, the absence of coconut trees inside the campus , the beehives , the water problems and other important matters . Once in a while the boy will enquire seriously about the health of a girl’s long dead and buried uncle. Things will be happy ever after.
The long summer break has provided me with an opportunity to laugh at others and silently deride others and at the same time feel proud of my limited achievements-if I may dare call them so!! I have overheard many of my colleagues talk over phone to their concerned parents. In one such occasion I overheard a person say thatshe has had two pieces of bread for supper. I felt sorry for the listener at the other end .I allowed myself a wry and muted laughter . I was reminded of the broad based classification that my senior back home had once made. According to him , extraordinarily gifted persons who constitute the rarefied and extolled class, talk about concepts , systems and processes. No prizes for guessing that they are a very few in number . Lesser mortals like to talk about events and the next category of people like to talk about people. Since I have been made aware of the classification , needlessly to say, the readers would have understood by now as to which class of people I belong to. Just kidding.
By the way,we have had an opportunity to witness the gradual evolution of students at IISC. Starting from being “unconsciously incompetent” followed by “consciously incompetent” and then “unconsciously competent” and finally the elusive and most coveted stage of “conscious competence”– that is the stage best described by “I know what I know.” Not everybody experiences evolution the same way. You can dismiss the aforesaid as a management jargon but in fact with little variations, this is the way it is.You can use your skills in several ways. While writing your exam you may be at times unsure what a particular notation is meant to represent though you may be vaguely aware of the meaning of the representation but you can’t quite recollect if that was a “β” or an “η”. Don’t worry –heavens won’t fall apart- what you have to do is to write in a moving hand a hybrid syllable that represents a judicious mix of the above mentioned two syllables so that it implies a Greek alphabet written in a hurry and you can then leave the rest to the Almighty and his machinations.
Another common example of the intellectual persons behavioural trait is displayed when he is asked how “y” is related to function “x” .Obviously being oblivious to the forceful complexities of life imposed by the y’s and x’s, you can in response always write that y is a strong function of x and y is also related to a , b and c in such and such way. This will go on to reveal your territorial reach and functional grasp on your subject.Sometimes in class in response to the question : “Why we use the canonical form ?” you can respond by saying : “To make life easier”. This will go on to show that without beating around the bush,how succinctly you have summarised a three credit course. Another example which is based on the similar lines goes like this. The professor after a 30 minute ordeal with the chalk and the board has arrived at a conclusion how a certain “a” is related to a certain “b”. Next if a question is posed asking if you could now tell how “b” is related to “c” , the most appropriate response would be :-“In a similar way.” There are also methods to avert questions in class. The best way to do this is to be seated in the first bench. This in itself will sent out a message that you are the first among equals and there is a chance that you may know marginally more than the rest. Secondly, you should nod approvingly to the teacher’s comments and at times ask questions relating what has been just taught to something which was taught say 15 minutes back.This will reveal that your grey matter is indeed grey and you are a person with a highly developed cognitive faculty –the discerning individual. The best way , however , is to play to your strength . If , for example you are asked to write a critical appreciation on something – say “a cow” and you have prepared for something more massive and dignified like the elephant; you can start with the cow and say that one day the cow wandered into a forest infested with wild elephants . You should have guessed by now what to do next. And then the rest will be history and part of popular folklore. IISc will remember you thereafter and your example will be given to all aspiring students of Genetic Algorithm.
Back to more serious things now.One thing ubiquitous in it’s presence @ IISc and is perhaps the most widely used word here is “like”. No matter what you know you will find yourself ending up using this word at least 20 times in a day. The usage of this word in fact reveals your knowledge or the lack of it and it seems that you are simply buying time to think what to say next or cover up. It could also mean that you are not sure how to express what you know. So please do not fall like prey like to like the “like syndrome”.
A few days down the line you will find that shirts , T-shirts , Sweat shirts and all sorts of merchandise being available and so and so person needs to be contacted if you are willing to display at a later date the name of your department and why it means so much to you or why you think that others should hold you in high esteem-all you have is 40 inches(or may be less) of your shoulder to display the reasons succinctly. So please think and act fast.The temptation to pass on some bit of advice to the new bees/rookies is irresistible. Life at IISC is a journey like none other. The environment is priceless. Accessibility to resources are of the highest order. Your intake is more –you learn more and you yourself will be surprised to witness your transformation. Till better times prevail& the Maoists violence subsides-Chow!!

Subrata Chakrabarti (MechEngg)

Ripples, the design showcase

“Ripples” is the annual design expo at the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing (CPDM), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. It is a showcase of the innovative ideas that are conceived and actualized as products by the students of Product Design and Engineering, as part of their Masters in Design (M.Des) program. The event for this academic year was held on July9, 2010 at CPDM.
The products which were on display were designed keeping in mind their users and the context, integrating functionality, aesthetics, ergonomics, manufacturability and market viability which represent the ethos of the department. The products which were on display are the following.

The Portable Footbridge is a light modular bridge for quick transport and deployment in inhospitable terrain.
The Paraplegic Exerciser caters to a daily need for the physically challenged.
The Micro-farming Equipment is a multi-functional device to carry out frequent seedbed preparation processes in fragmented landholdings.
The Indoor Hybrid Solar Cooker is a highly efficient means for daily household cooking needs, a fine example of Sustainable Design.
The Ultrasonic Dishwasher is aimed at the middle class home- minimizing cost and water consumption.
The Personal Water Purifier Capsules are filters that are carried individually, giving potable water anytime, anywhere.
The Railway Track Cleaner is a device for garbage collection from railway tracks, and tackles an issue that poses a grave threat to community well being.
The Mobile Food Vending Cart enables vendors to supply wholesome food , cooked hygienically and served fresh to consumers outdoors.

The above products, among others, reflect the multidisciplinary background of the designers, and span a wide spectrum of needs and demographics.

Ripples Organising team, CPDM
Photo Credits: Urvesh Bharambe (CPDM)

Perspective: Shared accommodation in hostels

Although very intelligent, the proposal on the shared accommodation by the Dean, Admission committee along with the Students’ Council suggests the apparent incompetence of the relevant officials to provide comfortable accommodation to the incoming students. It is important that we analyze it.

The proposal says that if a current student staying in a single room volunteers to share his room with a fresher, the hostel fees for a semester (worth INR 4,000) would be waived. The semester mentioned in the relevant broadcast is “August to January”, i.e., six months. Thus, essentially, one can “rent” half of his room for INR 667 per month. I am skeptical whether a person who receives more than INR 8,000 per month will go for this sum given the privacy encroachment and the uncomfort a shared accommodation would bring along.

Is it too strong to term it as “rent”? Let’s see. The fresher has to pay double-room charges for half of the room he/she gets. Why? That is because, this is the way to compensate for the waiver given to the senior. Together, this becomes single-room rent per student. Thus, the institute accommodates two persons in a single room, and still manages to receive money for two single-room accommodations. Very clever! Why is this possible? Because the senior who already “owns” the room gets benefited. How? His room rent is paid by the fresher. And who feels the burden? The fresher, for whom getting admission in the best research institute in the country is such a glorifying experience, that he can share a room with even three other roommates!

The terms mentioned in the form for opting for this proposal are also worth noting. The institute is not providing any extra cots, chairs or tables, suggesting the fresher to put his bed on the floor, sit there, study there. Or, rather, suggesting that the institute will not add to its expenditure. The careful use of the words “may” and “might” makes it look like a legal document which almost always signifies an escape route. Thus, “an extra almirah … may be provided” and “a cot might be accommodated”. The clause “if there is enough space” is the best joke. The next term has a dangerous implication. It says “If the host has to accommodate for one more term …”, suggesting that a senior may be “forced” to continue with the fresher even after a semester. I am unsure whether it should still be called as a “voluntary” service. Further, “voluntary” is only from one side; as far as the freshers are considered, they do not have any choice. Considering the finishing date of the new hostels (near Juice Centre) is mid 2011, another semester of this “concentration chamber” is not unlikely.

One of my colleagues, who was definitely not happy with the proposal, exclaimed, “Why can’t they ask each faculty member to host one student in his/her faculty quarter!” I am unsure how to react to this argument. A few departments are moving to the new buildings. Could an empty building be used as an accommodation facility for a semester? One of the officials once mentioned (in a private communication) that there are no recruitments of the permanent staff after 1980s and hence a large pool of staff quarters is empty. Could these be utilized for a better accommodation?

I think it is discountable if we fall short of 10 rooms. But the number 170 is significantly large. The uncomfort this mismanagement is going to cause is well foreseen. Hence the use of terms like “the host and the guest are expected to maintain some common decorum”. The impression of the institute we are providing to the freshers is definitely going to get affected with this arrangement. Let us hope that the accommodation issue gets resolved soon.

Rupesh Nasre (CSA)

IISc in news

Keep Turmeric at Bay
The recent study done by the scientists (PhD scholar Sandhya Marathe and Dipshikha Chakravortty, Associate Professor, MCBL) of the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) claims that intake of turmeric should be avoided during a period of high rates of food-borne diseases. The examination of various experiments at IISc listed that Salmonella bacteria multiplied three times faster when exposed to ‘curcumin’, the major molecular constituent of turmeric.

Sunil Kumar to Head Chicago’s Booth School of Business
Stanford University professor and operations management expert Sunil Kumar will join the ranks of Indian Americans heading top-tier graduate business schools in the United States. Sunil Kumar was announced as the next dean of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Kumar received a master’s in engineering in computer science and automation from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a bachelor’s in engineering from Mangalore University in Surathkal.

IISc to admit 110 for 2011 UG course
IISc proposes to offer admission to 110 students in its new under-graduate Bachelor of Science (BS) course that is set to begin from August 1, 2011.
The four year under-graduate course has been designed for specialization in six streams – physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, materials and environmental science.

Faster cancer prognosis, courtesy IISc and Apple

A new imaging method has been developed which uses infrared imaging to accelerate the diagnosis of cancers affecting lung, ovary, breast and skin. This breakthrough innovation in the cancer treatment field is a collaborative effort by researchers (led by Dr. Phaneendra Yalavarthy, Assistant Professor of SERC, IISc) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and technology giant Apple
However, the big step forward comes in form of three-dimensional image reconstruction. The Apple and IISc team aim to reconstruct images in 3D in realtime.

IISc Chitradurga to focus on global problems
Indian Institute of Science, coming with its new centre in Chitradurga district, would focus on global problems including that of energy and water, a top IISC official said.

Do Away With Multiple Daily Insulin Injections For Diabetes
Indian Institute of Science scientist Avadesh Surolia, along with his students has discovered a novel way to do away with multiple insulin. Instead, one injection of a new pro-drug every 10 days – maybe once a month – would be good enough to take care of the patient’s need for insulin.
They call it a pro-drug or a supra-molecular insulin assembly (SIA).  It’s like a big blob in which many insulin molecules are grouped together in a specific folding pattern.
“The patient requires taking insulin injection only once in a month,” says Surolia.

IISc alumni receive awards, get nostalgic
Among the awardees of distinguished alumni awards 2010 were, Prof J Gopalkrishnan, honorary professor and INSA senior scientist; K L Kashyap, department of electrical and computer engineering, Purdue University, USA; P S Raghavan, Indian ambassador to Ireland; Umeshwar Dayal, H P Labs, USA; and, Vijay Kumar Saraswat, scientific advisor to Rakshamantri, DRDO, New Delhi.

Come back doctor

A recent article by a well-known columnist in a local newspaper about her tryst with the medical fraternity prompted me to recall my own experience on the subject.

My memory goes back to the fifties and sixties when our own Capt. Dr. Hoskote Panduranga Rao had his clinic on 8th Main road in Malleswaram. On presenting yourself and narrating your symptoms, the kindly doctor would examine your tongue, pulse, stomach and the chest with a stethoscope. ‘Hakka Koryanre Vakkada’ he would say. He then goes go to his dispensing room, which had a number of labelled bottles and prepare a mixture with his own hands—no compounder! ‘Take it 3 times a day for a week and everything should be fine’. And indeed it was! Sometimes when the patient was too sick, he would make house-visits on his way home and all he asked for was a cup of ‘rimzim’ coffee piping hot.

Fast forward to the 21st century. A couple of months back, I started experiencing giddiness during my daily walks and a general weakness. My doctor at the IISc Health Centre after an analysis of my blood, found me anaemic and my BP was slighty lower than normal. To be on the safe side, she advised me to see the cardiologist for a checkup. My cardiologist, eminent in the field, Professor and Head of Cardiology at a reputed hospital and also a very friendly person, after a thorough examination and an echo-scan found the condition of my heart stable. He only changed the dosage of one of the many pills which I was popping into my mouth every day. However, when I casually mentioned to him that that I had some discomfort in my stomach below the rib-cage he appeared a trifle anxious. ‘Sir, there is a possibility of an ulcer there. It’s better you see a gastro-enterologist in the hospital and have an endoscopy of the stomach.’ he said.

The next day, with an appointment, I entered the gastro-enterology section. I was surprised to find the room overflowing with patients, waiting for an endoscopy, colonoscopy and the works. Many Bangaloreans, apparently have gastro-enteric problems, perhaps, due to the polluted water supplied by BWSSB, I thought.. The specialist examined me and advised a scan, endoscopy and a detailed analysis of stools, urine and blood once again. I presented myself the next day, as usual, with the dutiful wife in tow. After a long wait, the endoscopic examination was completed. While the procedure took only a few minutes, it seemed like hours with a long tube thrust into my throat making it difficult even to breathe!

The third day began with an anxious wait, with all the reports under scrutiny. The verdict
– there was nothing seriously wrong with my body except for a slight acidity problem, for which some tablets were prescribed. However, the gentleman pronounced that it is advisable to have another endoscopic examination after a month, just in case! While nodding my head I swore under my breadth that this was the last time I was seeing his face! So finally it was back to my IISc physician, who prescribed some Vitamin B Complex injections, an iron tonic and the use of a walking stick. After a month I was back to my normal self. However, I have not started using a walking stick yet, lest I give the impression to my many Malleswaram friends that I have grown old.

The unfortunate outcome of my week-long visits to the hospital was that not only had I a big dent in my wallet but more importantly, I missed the 50th wedding anniversary of a dear relative – a function I was eagerly looking forward to!

The moral of this story? That I leave to my readers who have patiently gone through this
Note: The three Konkani words used roughly translate to ‘ Don’t worry. We will do some thing about it.’

Prof. Hattikudur Manohar, IPC

Tète-à-Tète with the tiny flame

“It’s not fear, no surely not!”
I always ask the tiny flame,
“What it exactly is …?”
Yes, it’s amazement,
Or may be just curiosity!!
What if my heart stops pounding now ….
All my hopes and aspirations are gone forever;
“But then what’s life?”
I ask again the tiny flame.
“It is just like me” — it says,
“It is not a dream beyond our gaze,
But you can’t grasp it in your palm.
It amuses while in distance,
But a mere touch chaperons melancholy.
Usually it’s temporary, confined in mortal mesh,
But an armor against sudden blows
Clinches its permanence.

Whenever it’s in an eclipse,
It needs to be rebuilt, to be burnt once again,
Just to grow and get learned.”
“Life is truly like a tiny flame,
With wee words, but a giant zeal”

But still I struggle to make a dent in it.
This feeling haunts me night and day.
And it’s a question without an answer!
For this is the only answer,
To all questions ever asked !!!!

Prasenjit Biswas